If Michael K had any luck, he’d have no luck at all. Born with a hare lip deformity, he is ditched by his unmarried mother and grows up somewhat abused in a government institution. When his mother becomes ill, she contacts Michael and they try to return to the town of her birth, where as a young girl she had known happiness. The country is in a state of quasi-martial law, so getting papers for a trip for two paupers from Cape Town to the interior turns out to be impossible. So they walk. Rather, K walks and pulls a cart that his afflicted mother rides in. Of course they are harassed all the way and the mother cashes in her chips before they get there, but K pushes on with her ashes until he reaches an abandoned farm that is his best guess as to where she grew up.
From this point on in the book, K makes an assault on the maxim that no man is an island. He lives in a hole in the ground in the middle of nowhere, sleeps for days at a time and begins to live on the brink of starvation. Coetzee really goes deep on describing how little K is subsisting on. Despite endless bad luck, people do try to reach out to K, but he maintains an internal independence, even in a forced labor camp or among a band of nomad bums.
Readers compare this book to Kafka or The Bible, but Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning may come to mind as well. “Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.” K is living that way.
Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians was the best book we read in 2015. Regrettably, the Life & Times of Michael K is not in that category. You may feel that you are wasting away while you are reading it. In sum, a solid book, but slow and featuring a protagonist that you may not care much about.